Thursday 26 April 2018

Football under microscope

A high-profile doping trial in Spain could leave football with its own case to answer, writes Dion Fanning

The player wasn't feeling great and thought he would miss a crucial cup tie. He told his club as much but they needed him and tried to find a solution. The solution came in the form of a tablet. The player was given and took 'some sort of pep pill'. He got through the game but later reflected that he would probably have broken current regulations. The player was Sir Stanley Matthews. The year was 1946.

Tomorrow in Spain, Eufemiano Fuentes goes on trial in Madrid. Fuentes is the central figure in the investigation Operation Puerto which has gone on for seven years and revealed the extent of doping across sport.

Yet the case which begins tomorrow will only deal with cycling. There will be more lurid stories, more wonder as the code words and secret documents are revealed (Fuentes is said to have called blood transfusions 'orange juice').

Pat McQuaid, the president of the UCI, has complained that other sports will not be examined. Bernard Hinault says cycling is a victim of its own openness but more authoritative voices also wonder why, when Fuentes has suggested he knows plenty beyond the world of cycling, this will not be revealed in the Spanish court.

"We have been banging our heads against a brick wall to get access to the evidence that was gathered," David Howman of WADA said last week.

Fuentes has previously hinted of the damage he could cause with a full confession.

And a former cyclist, Jesus Manzano, said he had seen famous footballers visiting Fuentes' clinic but still the investigation was limited.

In 2006, journalist Stephane Mandard wrote a piece about his meeting with Eufemiano Fuentes. Le Monde subsequently lost a libel action on the back of this article. But despite a series of failed appeals they are taking a case to the Spanish Supreme Court.

Fuentes is charged with public health offences as doping was not illegal in Spain at the time he was operating. For that reason cyclists, athletes, tennis players and footballers willingly engaged with Fuentes. Fuentes will not deny that transfusions took place but he will deny the charges, saying he used the best of equipment.

He is said by those who have talked to him since his arrest to have been fearful of the reaction from football clubs, but he also boasted to those he treated about his connections to other sports.

"Yes, for sure he was involved and when he talked about it he was quite proud," Jorge Jaksche, a German cyclist whose career was ended by Operation Puerto said last week. "I think there is a big cover-up by the Spanish government. There is no interest from on high in too much information coming out."

Fuentes told Mandard that his client list extended beyond cycling to football, tennis, handball and other sports.

Many are already asking questions about tennis as the links between top players and men like Luis Garcia del Moral, a doctor who worked with Lance Armstrong and who is now serving a lifetime ban, are revealed.

Last year, the International Tennis Federation banned Del Moral from participating at tennis events in any capacity, although they can't prevent any association outside sanctioned events.

US Open semi-finalist Sara Errani said last year that she would no longer work with Del Moral despite being free to do so.

"I spoke with the ITF and they didn't tell me that I cannot go any more to him," Errani, who moved from 45th in the rankings to 10th in 2012, said. "They told me that I can go if I want, but of course I'm not interested in keeping working with a person that is involved in these things."

When an ITF spokesperson was asked about this, they replied, "It is not a violation under the WADA Code or the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme for a player to associate with people who are banned for doping violations. The ITF perspective of Ms Errani's comment is that there is nothing to prevent her from seeing Dr Garcia del Moral. Whether or not she does so is her choice."

There is too much at stake in football for some within the game not to have been tempted to make bad choices. Imagine if your star player never got injured or recovered in astonishing time from an injury. Endurance may not be the central talent required in football but if you can make sure that the most gifted are more durable then there will be great benefits.

FIFA will also uphold the ban on Del Moral and point to the success of their testing programme but, as USADA have proved, there needs to be an investigative element to anti-doping programmes too. "Testing alone is not enough," the WADA president John Fahey said last year when encouraging sporting authorities to work with law enforcement agencies.

Until that happens, there will be athletes in all sports who make the decision that, if they want to win, they have to dope.

Fausto Coppi, the Tour de France winner, was once asked if he had taken drugs. "Yes, when it was necessary." The follow-up question was simple: when was it necessary? "Almost always."

Football players are asked to play more games each year at a greater intensity. The rewards are huge and there can be an equal cost if a player misses out through injury. In 1999, Emmanuel Petit complained that the demands made by football authorities were already forcing some players to take drugs. At the same time, Luis Garcia del Moral was telling Tyler Hamilton that cyclists were angels compared to footballers.

The website of the sports centre where Del Moral worked in Valencia claimed that he had been a "medical adviser" to leading clubs, including Barcelona. Barcelona said last year that he had never been on the payroll but couldn't guarantee that he hadn't been employed on an ad hoc basis. They told the Daily Telegraph that they had since overhauled their medical system and personnel.

Pep Guardiola tested positive for nandrolone twice within a fortnight in 2001. Guardiola fought to prove his innocence and was eventually cleared. "My name is Pep Guardiola. I'm a football player. A machine says that I have taken nandrolone. Next to this machine there is a man who says it's not true."

If Guardiola was a victim of faulty testing processes, the revelations from Italy revealed a systematic problem and perhaps a complicit culture.

In 1998, Zdenek Zeman, the Roma coach then and now although he has coached ten clubs in between, gave an interview in which he claimed there was widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in Italian football.

A magistrate in Turin, Raffaele Guariniello, investigated and Zeman was interviewed along with Sandro Donati, the Italian anti-doping campaigner who had exposed Professor Conconi, the man who taught Lance Armstrong's favourite doctor Michele Ferrari so much.

Following these interviews, Guariniello ordered a raid on Juventus and 281 different pharmaceutical products were found at the club. Most of these were not banned but the amount staggered the investigators and led to the comment that briefly captured the sporting world's attention. "The club," Guariniello's medical adviser said, "was equipped like a small hospital".

As the investigation continued, a laboratory in Rome was searched. Documents showed that some players in Italy had abnormally high haematocrit levels, suggesting probable use of EPO. Last year, the former Parma player Matias Almeyda told how the players would be connected to an IV drip before games. "They said it was a mixture of vitamins but before entering the field I was able to jump up as high as the ceiling."

In January 2002, two Juventus club officials, Antonio Giraudo and club doctor Riccardo Agricola, were charged with supplying pharmaceutical products to Juventus players.

Guariniello called it a "trial of ethics" and alleged that during the years 1994 to 1998 Giraudo and Agricola supplied legal substances to several players but the manner in which they were administered, it was claimed, produced the same effect as illegal products.

In court, Juventus records revealed that a number of their players had notably high haematocrit levels. Ultimately Agricola and Giraudo were both cleared, Agricola on appeal, but Dick Pound, then head of WADA, called for Juventus to be stripped of the Champions League and three league titles they had won during that period. Nothing was done.

Some will draw a line from Italy to Fuentes through Luis Garcia del Moral and arrive at the present day. Others believe the sport, at least in certain countries, is clean.

"It would have to be a massive conspiracy," Lord David Triesman, former chairman of the FA, says. "And you would also have to assume that nobody would ever talk about this conspiracy."

In 2011, Triesman gave evidence to a parliamentary committee about the governance of the English game and England's World Cup bid, of which he had been head until he was forced to resign.

English football was taken with stories of corruption in FIFA as they tried to understand how they could have lost the bid.

In the course of this evidence, Triesman mentioned that he had been contacted by a Spanish journalist who had evidence of doping in Spanish football and wanted to ascertain if it could happen in England. Triesman's remarks in the House of Commons were barely noticed. In fact, he says, until last week, they weren't noticed at all.

Perhaps football doesn't listen when doping gets mentioned or there is an overwhelming desire for it not to be true. Triesman is certain there isn't a problem with performance-enhancing drugs in English football. "Traditionally the culture of the game in England has been robustly hostile to drug-taking of all kinds. There wasn't always a huge intolerance to alcohol intake."

Perhaps this culture protected English football for many reasons. On a very basic level, a sophisticated doping programme would be wasted if the footballer was drinking 14 pints every Saturday night.

But English football has changed. The drinking culture has gone for the most part and it has been replaced by an understanding of the merits of looking after your body.

In some sports such as cycling, performance-enhancing drugs were viewed as a statement of intent. In 2000, Lance Armstrong told Frankie Andreu, "it's time to get serious" and for Armstrong that meant committing to a proper doping programme.

Lord Triesman views cycling as an example of how a culture will always triumph no matter what. "If you've a bad culture, it doesn't matter what processes you have, the culture will always win out."

Football in England, he says, has a culture which would never tolerate doping. "I've had plenty of criticisms of football, but this isn't one of them."

There may be footballers who have elected to dope but there have also been allegations of systematic doping being implemented by clubs rather than rogue players. Arsene Wenger stated in 2004 that players were coming to Arsenal from abroad and displaying signs that they had been taking EPO at their previous clubs.

"We have had some players come to us at Arsenal from other clubs abroad and their red blood cell count has been abnormally high. That kind of thing makes you wonder," he said.

Wenger added that "there are clubs who dope their players without their players knowing". This would be something of an advantage for clubs which would like to keep any suspicious activity quiet. Wenger's comments were reported at the time but then football returned to the default position that there was nothing to see here.

In the superb study of drugs in sport, Addicted to Winning? An introduction to Drugs in Sport, Ivan Waddington and Andy Smith detail many of these investigations. They also cite a study of English professionals done by Waddington in which 34 per cent of players stated that they believed performance-enhancing drugs were being used by players. The majority – 23 per cent – felt they were being used by under two per cent of players.

Unless the Fuentes trial takes an unexpected turn – and anyone familiar with the portrait of Fuentes from Tyler Hamilton's book wouldn't be shocked if it did – it is unlikely to add to the understanding of doping in other sports.

There are those within cycling like McQuaid and Hinault who want somebody else under the spotlight. There are others who wonder with the money and the pressure if football can claim that drugs are isolated to rogue elements.

Fuentes has claimed that he treated many global names, even if they were always disguised in his record by code words.

Football may not have been corrupted by doping like cycling but there is some evidence that when it has been done, it has been done well. The secrets have been kept too. It may be a conspiracy of silence. Or it may be a conspiracy of the deaf.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport